When organisms encounter environments that are heterogeneous in time, phenotypic plasticity is often favored by selection. The degree of such plasticity can vary during an organism’s lifetime, but the factors promoting differential plastic responses at different ages or life stages remain poorly understood. Here we develop and analyze an evolutionary model to investigate how environmental information is optimally collected and translated into phenotypic adjustments at different ages. We demonstrate that plasticity must often be expected to vary with age in a nonmonotonic fashion. Early in life, it is generally optimal to delay phenotypic adjustments until sufficient information has been collected about the state of the environment to warrant a costly phenotypic adjustment. Toward the end of life, phenotypic adjustments are disfavored as well because their beneficial effects can no longer be fully reaped before death. Our analysis clarifies how patterns of age-dependent plasticity are shaped by the interplay of environmental uncertainty, the accuracy of perceived information, and the costs of phenotypic adjustments with life-history determinants such as the relative strengths of fecundity and viability selection experienced by the organism over its lifetime. We conclude by comparing our results with expectations for alternative mechanisms, including developmental constraints, that promote age-dependent plasticity.
The data package contains two datasets:
C++ source code for finding the optimal reaction norm for age-dependent plasticity. The compiled program executes a backward state-dependent optimization procedure, as outlined in our paper.
This Mathematica notebook (created using Mathematica version 8.0) can be used to create phenotype and estimate trees, as well as plots of the optimal reaction norm from the output files generated by the optimization program.